Ride the whirlwind

Still Life with TornadoStill Life with Tornado by A.S. King

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A.S. King is one of my favourite US YA writers. She manages to weave fantasy and reality together so deftly you hardly notice it. Sarah, this novel’s protagonist, is a sixteen year old who is floundering. She feels lost, disconnected and uncomfortable in her own skin – so much so that she wants to change her name: to Umbrella. Little by little we see the cracks in Sarah. She starts to encounter other versions of herself, at 10 years old, 23 years old, and finally at 40 years old. Sometimes she is with all three. King lets Sarah, for the most part, push the story along – but there are periodic interjections from her mother, Helen. Helen, an ER nurse who works mainly at night, also reveals herself bit by bit and as we read we realise that Sarah might not be the only family member in crisis. Sarah’s absent brother, Bruce, begins to form in the story about a third of the way in and it is clear his expulsion from the family in contributing to Sarah’s fragile state. I don’t want to say too much because there are so many kernels of wonderful to explore in this novel. Sarah is a great character: sensitive; smart; funny and trying to find the girl she once was; just like her mother Helen. Can’t wait to read the next A.S. King on my list – Dig

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Lost Concentr8tion

Concentr8Concentr8 by William Sutcliffe

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

(Recently found unpublished draft from 2016)

I was incredibly disappointed with this novel. The premise held such promise – a society that could be our own right now, treating “troublesome” young people with a cheap medication en masse to keep the peace, then the drug is taken away suddenly and there are riots in the streets. The story’s focus then becomes a group of friends who take a low-level government employee hostage – because they can.
I guess part of the reason for writing this book was to show that medicating children, stifling their emotions, is a rollercoaster to nowhere, and Sutcliffe has captured that well, but I wish there was MORE. This felt like lazy writing to me and I kept hoping there would be more to it. Like some other reviewers, I was not “gripped” by this story at all, and I really had to force myself to finish it so I could review it properly. Concentr8 is full of cliches, lots of swearing and not much else. A genuine disappointment from an author who is capable of so much more.
Suitable for mature readers 14 and up (mainly because of the swearing – there’s a LOT of it)

When lies become the truth

This Story Is a LieThis Story Is a Lie by Tom Pollock

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What an interesting read this was! Started out as one thing and then took a left turn and became something even better. Taut, suspenseful and compelling; this is a corker of a debut novel. Pollock is writing from a place of knowledge and his portrayal of Peter, in particular, is fantastic. I sympathised with his character straight away and loved his story arc as he becomes someone he never imagined he could be. There are plenty of sinister and shady support characters too, and the parental influences here are terrifying. The ending of this book left me hanging, which was absolutely by design and very cleverly done. I look forward to seeing what else comes from the mind of Tom Pollock. This is a very self-assured and breathtaking debut.

A Riotous Romp

The Gentleman's Guide to Vice and Virtue (Montague Siblings, #1)The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a corker. A fun romp with the dissolute and self-centred Monty and his faithful and close confidante, Percy. Along for the ride is Monty’s sister Felicity who is not your average Regency chick. After embarking on their Grand Tour, things go horribly awry for Monty and his party when he decides, out of spite, to pilfer a small box from the home of a French Minister, the Duke of Bourbon. Their trip turns into a daring and breathless chase across France, Spain and Italy as they are robbed, kidnapped and enlisted as pirates along the way.
Monty and Percy are developing a close relationship, closer than society would like and, to make things even more complicated, Percy reveals he is epileptic – an affliction that will see him thrown into an asylum.
Lee maintains a good narrative pace, and the characters are engaging and likeable. The historical details feel accurate and cover a wide variety of issues of the period. Of particular interest are the treatment of black people such as Percy, and conventions around the roles of women such as Felicity. Monty is the lens the reader sees these things through, and he learns as we learn.
Heartily recommended for ages 14 and up.

Americus the Beautiful

AmericusAmericus by M.K. Reed

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Americus is one of the best graphic novels I have read in recent years. I have been meaning to read it for nearly five years, so I am glad I finally managed to catch up with it today. Set in the ficticious town of Americus, the plot centres around a young guy, Neil, who has just started high school in the US (Year 9) and his life. Neil and his best friend, Danny, are ardent fans of a book series called The Adventures of Apathea Ravenchilde (a thinly veiled Harry Potter lookalike). Danny’s mum is, in the Australian vernacular, a God botherer. She takes it upon herself to “save” Danny from the satanic evils of witchcraft by tearing up the latest installment in the series in front of the local public librarian and then sends Danny to military school so he won’t risk being exposed to the wickedness Americus’ public library. Parents, town officials, school management and the kids square off against one another in various combinations as the fight for the right to read starts a battle for the ages. Neil is a perfectly pitched character – embarrassed by his own mum’s fussing, but grateful for her support when he needs it most; awkward around most people, but starting to find his tribe by the close of proceedings. I loved every page of this fantastic book. There is plenty to say here, and clearly the writer is firmly on the side of reading freedom, but there is room for discussion with young people around the issues this raises. Karma is handed out to all – and the ultimate irony of Danny’s banishment by his mother when he writes to Neil about what he is reading is sweet perfection.
An instant classic and suitable for ages 12 and up.

X marks my heart

The Poet XThe Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Hot tears of recognition stained my face as I finished reading this in a cafe this morning. Xiomara lives with her twin and parents in Harlem. She is fierce and feisty and has had to defend herself against unwanted male attention, thanks to a early-maturing body, for a long time. Constantly warned by her fervently religious mother about the perils of her own body, X writes poetry to escape and to make sense of a world that constantly tells her to be ashamed of who she is.

When your body takes up more room than your voice
you are always the target of well-aimed rumors,
which is why I let my knuckles talk for me.
Which is why I learned to shrug when my name was replaced
by insults.
I’ve forced my skin just as thick as I am.

X becomes involved romantically with a boy named Aman, who loves her for her words, and her heart, rather than what her body appears to promise. Encouraged by her English teacher, X joins a poetry club at school and finds her tribe; like-minded souls whose emotions spill onto the page just like hers.
The suffocation of Xiomara’s life, under the searing gaze of her judgemental and punitive mother, is palpable. Always being told what she is not allowed to do or allowed to be because she is a girl, X pours her hopes, dreams, frustration and anger onto the pages of her precious leather-bound journal.

And I think about all the things we could be
if we were never told our bodies were not built for them.

Caught kissing Aman one day, X’s life spirals out of control and what comes next for her is devastating, terrifying, and agonising. My heart ached and broke for this wonderful girl, and for her twin brother, as they faced gut-wrenching choices about what comes next.
I held this book to my chest when I finished it, trying to imprint Xiomara and her poetry onto my heart. I didn’t need to; they were already there, and there they will stay. I think this is probably the best YA I have read all year, and possibly WILL BE the best I have read all year. It will take something remarkable to top it.
Highly and enthusiastically recommended. Do not wait. Do not “put it on your list”.

Read it. Now.

Big Money

MunmunMunmun by Jesse Andrews

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Having not read Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, I was not sure what to expect from this Jesse Andrews offering. Having heard a little more about Me and Earl, I am really glad I have not read it yet. This book sounds like a HUGE departure from that one. In the world Andrews has created in MunMun, how much cash you have determines how big you are – literally. The more munmun you have, the more upscale you are. If you have only a few hundred munmuns, you are ten inches tall. if you have 2 million, you are the size of a house or bigger. It is a most disarming premise and difficult to wrap your head around at first. What is clear though is that the smaller people are in peril every day of their lives. Middlepoors and middleriches (the in-between sizes) step on their houses, or worse, their cats eat the Littlepoors. It is a harsh existence and our hero, Warner, and his sister, Prayer, are locked in a struggle to improve their situation by earning more munmuns. Opportunities to do this are limited. The less you have, the less you have access to – and turning to crime, or selling yourself to the bigger citizens feels like the only way to make things change.
This book is a searing satire with is gaze firmly on the USA and the policies of Trump Republicanism. The more is more philosophy of the current presidency, and the willingness to leave the “little guy” behind, despite their beautiful dreams of another life, is to the fore here. The closing scenes of the book are tinged with hope, but only because there is decimation before. I won’t say any more, because I hate spoilers, but this book must be read to be believed. I have never read anything like it, although there are echoes of Gulliver’s Travels in the way the society views those who are not “one of them”. Lots of otherness, lots of things to think about. Definitely worth the effort of bending your mind around this version of the Yewess.

Nothing but net

The CrossoverThe Crossover by Kwame Alexander

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In The Crossover, Kwame Alexander has produced an evocative and heartfelt love song to basketball, and an honest look at sibling rivalry and family conflict. Thirteen year old Josh and Jordan are twin brothers, both immensely talented and members of the same high school basketball team. At 13 years old, they have their whole lives ahead of them, and pushing them to greater heights is their Dad, Charlie, himself a former basketball champion.
As the season progresses, Josh finds Jordan, once his closest companion, drifting away into a relationship with a new arrival, Alexis. Coupled with a sense of abandonment, Josh also sees his father’s health deteriorating and experiences a sense of powerlessness that is palpable.
The structure of this verse novel works really well as it manipulates language to emphasise Josh’s growing loneliness, as well as the excitement and adrenalin-rush of the basketball games he and Jordan play in. In fact, once the story kicks in, one forgets it is a verse novel- and that is a great strength of the writing here.
Some readers struggle with verse novels because of the short form of the text, but I think this really adds to The Crossover, giving it an immediacy and verve that compliments its subject matter.
Recommended for ages 13 and up.

Panic – don’t.

PanicPanic by Sharon M. Draper
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I expected big things from this novel as Sharon Draper is a popular writer in our library. Out of My Mind has been a big middle school favourite this year and I was interested to see how Draper would tackle the meaty subject matter of this book.
I was, in the end, disappointed by both the writing and how the abduction, rape and rescue of central character, Diamond, was handled. This book started out okay – with a group of friends at a dance school preparing for a showcase performance. Two of the girls, Mercedes and Diamond go to the mall to buy new tights and only one of them makes it home. Diamond is enticed away by a smooth talking stranger (Thane English) and finds herself in a terrifying and perilous situation. The reader sees her drugged, tied up and abused by numerous men in the name of video “entertainment”. It is a hard read. Her friends don’t seem too worried by her disappearance at first – perhaps this is an American phenomenon – if this happened here it would be all over social media in a matter of hours.
As well as the abduction of Diamond, the other issue in this book is partner abuse. Layla, a talented dancer, is verbally and physically abused by her boyfriend Donny. Again, there just doesn’t seem to be enough concern from her friends about this. They all talk about what is happening, but no-one seems brave enough to talk to HER about it. Donny is controlling and leaves bruises on her regularly and I found it difficult to believe that even the dance teacher (who must have seen Layla in leotards and dance gear regularly) failed to notice anything.
I got very impatient with this book. Mercedes, Layla,and Diamond speak in what I assume is supposed to be some sort of “street” talk, which sounds forced and ridiculous. Justin, the only male teen (other than the abusive Donny) felt like the only “real” character to me. He is caring, concerned, sensitive, but also struggles to make sense of what is going on both with Diamond’s disappearance and Layla’s abusive relationship. It is interesting to me as I have written about this book as an example of “YA realism” for a Uni essay because it hits a lot of markers present in other realist novels, but overall the effect is more of hyper-realism.
I also found an undercurrent of victim blaming in this novel. It is covert, but it is there, lurking in the background, particularly in relation to Diamond and her conduct and what it has led to.
I was actually asked to remove this book from the library by another library staffer because she had a complaint from a student about the “disturbing” content. I refused, because even an average book about these topics is better than none at all, and there are lessons to be learned from reading this novel. Draper, while not being graphic, does not pull punches in describing Diamond’s ordeal and that is a good thing. There is nothing pretty about rape, nothing attractive about being robbed of all control over what happens to you. In this, the novel excels. The resolution of the Layla/Donny situation is a satisfying one, but the rest of the novel’s conclusion left me shaking my head.
I would not recommend this book if you can find a better, preferably Australian, alternative. Try Stolen: A Letter to My Captor or Hostage as other options.

I would not give this book to anyone under 14 to read, unless you were confident they could handle the subject matter.

From one boy to another….

The Boy at the Top of the MountainThe Boy at the Top of the Mountain by John Boyne

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The day I read The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, I knew I had read something life-changing. The story of Bruno and Shmuel is one I will never forget. It is possible that this new book by John Boyne just might be of the same calibre.
Pierrot is a young Parisian boy who lives with his parents in a time of great upheaval. Pierrot’s father is a WWI returned serviceman with symptoms of what we would now recognise as PTSD. After his father’s suicide, Pierrot’s mother becomes gravely ill and before he really understands what is happening, seven year old Pierrot is living in an orphanage. Fortunately he is not there long as his paternal aunt, whom he has never met, arranges for him to live with her. Aunt Beatrix is the housekeeper in a house on an Austrian mountain top. The staff treat the owner of the house, Herr Hitler, with the utmost fear and respect. Pierrot has arrived at the Berghof.
Straight away, life changes for Pierrot. His aunt buys him Austrian clothes, and tells him from now on he will be called “Pieter”. She tells him it is for his own safety and he must not ever mention his best friend from Paris, Anshel Bronstein. Beatrix and the chauffeur, Ernst, tell Pieter that his life depends on not mentioning his old life in France at all.
It is interesting that Boyne chose the name Pierrot for this child protagonist, as Pierrot is a stock theatre character known as ‘the sad clown’. Pieter has to dress up and pretend to be someone else, as Pierrot the clown does, and Pieter must charm and win over Herr Hitler in order to be allowed to stay, just as Pierrot dressed up and acted the fool to win over Columbine.
Day by day, month by month, Pieter becomes part of life at the Berghof. He greatly admires Herr Hitler, his benefactor, and he joins the Hitler Youth to honour him. His aunt can see he is changing, becoming a model Hitlerjugend, and she is powerless to stop it. Forced to disown his Jewish friend Anshel (left behind in Paris), and abandon his true heritage, Pieter is determined to fit in and be accepted by Hitler as a “model citizen” of the Reich. Pieter begins to watch the staff at the Berghof, including his aunt and Ernst, and he becomes someone they are fearful of. Buoyed by this feeling of power over others, Pieter tries to impress a girl from school, Katarina, with stories of his life at the Berghof, but she is unmoved.
As Pieter becomes more and more entrenched in life at the Berghof, he becomes closer and closer to Hitler and drawn away from Aunt Beatrix. When he overhears Beatrix and Ernst talking about “stopping” the Fuhrer, Pieter is on high alert. At the staff Christmas Eve party, Pieter stops Hitler eating a piece of stollen poisoned by Ernst and Beatrix and their fate, and his, is sealed. On Christmas morning, as they are shot as traitors, Pieter tells himself, “she was a traitor, just like Ernst, and traitors must be punished.” His transformation is complete. Pierrot the French boy is now Pieter the Nazi.
The rest of the novel is an examination of a descent into evil. It is difficult to feel sympathy for Pieter as he throws his power around, hurting many other people in the process, but it is important to remember he is a product of his environment and his need to belong and feel accepted. These are powerful needs and emotions and this novel demonstrates how they can control and alter one’s life forever.
If The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is a study of how one man’s insanity can destroy an entire culture, The Boy at the Top of the Mountain is a study of how one culture’s complicity can destroy one young man. Equally as powerful, and a wonderful companion to his first novel, The Boy at the Top of the Mountain is an intense experience. I thought about this book for days after I had finished it, especially the ending (not revealed here because of my no-spoiler policy), and I still can’t completely let it go.
An absolute must-read. For ages 14 and up.